Yesterday, Business Insider ran the story "I took the challenge where I could spend only $125 on food last month — and it was easy" by Cameron Merriman.
This is exactly what bothered me when this whole "Poverty as a Science Fair Project" nonsense began. Merriman's right - most of the celebs and other people who tried to play the poverty game lost, not because $125 is not enough money, but because they played the game poorly. If you're smart enough and frugal enough, you can live on a lot less money than you think. As long as a whole lot of other stars align.
See, Cameron Merriman lives in San Francisco, where nutritious food is more expensive than the national average, but also much more accessible. Merriman would have had a much harder time if he was one of the 23.5 million Americans who live in food deserts. A food desert is a low-income area where there are no grocery stores within a mile (or within 10 miles, in rural areas where car ownership is more common). People who live in these areas and who do not have a way to get out of these areas often shop at corner stores and gas stations, where the food tends to be low-quality, unhealthy, and very, very overpriced. Merriman's purchases included fresh produce, organic chicken, eggs, pancetta, and a lot of other food that one could probably not purchase at a corner store or gas station.
|Low-income areas with limited access to grocery stores - USDA|
Even when there is a grocery store nearby, it's not likely to be Whole Foods. At Whole Foods, you can buy a single egg. At Save-A-Lot, you've got to buy a dozen. Merriman bought bulk foods, including oatmeal. Many stores in poorer neighborhoods don't have bulk food or weighed produce. You want bananas - you've got to buy a dozen. The prices are good, but you're likely to have to buy more than you can eat.
I also wonder how Merriman got himself to the grocery store. I suspect it had something to do with a Prius. But let's say he took public transit. That puts him at an advantage over the nation's millions of rural poor who don't have access to public transit.
As for public transit - I see seven receipts, so that's seven trips to pay for. Without money to pay for seven round-trip bus rides, we're right back at the price-gouging corner store.
Merriman also takes quite a bit for granted. For one, he has a home - people living on the streets can pretty much only purchase food for a day at a time - no bulk food, nothing perishable.
Merriman has electricity and running water - many don't. He has working appliances - a fridge, a microwave, a stove, a crock pot. Sure, most apartments come with some of those appliances, but that doesn't mean landlords are willing to keep those appliances working. Limited access to appliances means more prepared foods, which cost more money and are less nutritious. He's got pots, pans, plates.
Merriman doesn't appear to have serious food allergies to worry about. He doesn't appear to have health concerns that require a special diet. He doesn't have any of the myriad extenuating circumstances that people in poverty so often do.
But actually, I didn't really need to tell you any of this. Everything you need to know about Cameron Merriman can be summed up by his position on free food. Merriman says that people in poverty must have, "coworkers, friends, and family who are willing to help out a little." He has no idea that there are people who are alone in the world. He has no idea what it is like when everyone you know and love is just as bad off as you.
And he talks at length about all the free food that apparently flows like water in his city. He thinks that the fact that because men who look and dress and live like he does get free food, everybody gets free food.
Let them eat cake.
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But poverty is not a game to be won. It is not a puzzle to be solved. We don't get to say "Well, I was able to eat on the cheap for one month of my life. Case closed."